“Bring Your Baggage and Don’t Pack Light: Essays” By: Helen Ellis
“Bring Your Baggage and Don’t Pack Light: Essays”
Author: Helen Ellis
Price: $23.00 (Hardback)
Essay Collection Takes Mostly Comic Look at Women and Aging
Helen Ellis, originally from Tuscaloosa, had a wildly creative and comical debut novel in 2000, “Eating the Cheshire Cat,” then a volume of stories, “American Housewife,” 2016, then a volume of essays, “Southern Lady Code,” only two years ago. It is my understanding that she wrote a couple of novels that never got published and if she really hasn’t chucked them in a fit of Marie Kondo tidying-up I would like to read them.
Ellis moved to NYC soon after college but a good many of the essays in “Southern Lady Code” were a kind of humorous look back, a kind of Alabamian-now-in-the-north take on things. Ellis has what Yankees call “a smart mouth on her.” She likes to make wisecracks.
The title essay here continues this. “Bring Your Baggage” tells of a reunion of childhood friends on Panama City Beach, which she calls, without irony, the Redneck Riviera. On their first day on the beach they find themselves among “a nine-months-pregnant woman in a bikini and her meemaw in a thong. Awash in a sea of botched tattoos and bullet wounds, third-degree sunburns and cellulite that made our cellulite feel good about itself…”
This picture of Dixie is not exactly nostalgia but there is no real loss possible here. The people described, I am sure, buy very few books of essays.
On that trip, several of Ellis’s friends are going through something difficult—a failing marriage, a bad mammogram report—but in a way reminiscent of Cassandra King Conroy’s “Same Sweet Girls,” they comfort and support one another. Thus the title: friends don’t judge one another, so “Bring Your Baggage and Don’t Pack Light.”
There is also a nice piece about her father and his expertise at garage sales. Mr. Ellis has his own method. He prices items high, then haggles, declaring “Haggling separates us from the morons.”
For the most part, this volume is rooted in her life now in NYC and is more personal, less about place and Southern manners. Some subjects, though handled with aplomb and wit, are not easily made funny.
In an essay mostly about how Ellis likes to speculate about the sex habits of her married friends, and revealing her fear that she may soon be too old for “the game,” she also includes her resistance to having a safety bar installed in their shower/tub.
The inner Southern lady never dies. What would people think! “I’m forty-nine, not eighty,” she tells the plumber.
Tempus fugit, Helen; have the safety bar installed.
She and her husband do not drive. One essay describes a trip on a Greyhound so she can play poker in Atlantic City. A smelly bus is not a subject for extended humor.
Although Ellis has chosen not to have children, she waxes eloquent but distressed about the coming of menopause.
This transition has a powerful effect on her sense of self. She says: “my reproductive system looks like an hourglass with six grains of sand left.” She recalls the anxiety and uncertainly of the onset of puberty, but this time, she says, she and her friends, not the boys, “are the ones who get a mustache.”
The final essay, entitled “I Feel Better about My Neck,” is also rather personal. It concerns her lifelong burden: her double chin.
Ellis tells us none of her Southern childhood friends or their mothers have “had anything done”—that is, plastic surgery. But most of her NYC friends and their mothers have.
Ellis hates scalpels and sometimes faints at needles but finally decides to have her neck done by means of three rounds of injections, with a very small needle, of stomach bile to the neck.
That is an odd choice and not comic material but, happily, it did the job. She feels better about her neck.
Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.